The Day of Ashura and Its Historical Dimensions

The principal events that are thought to have taken place on the day of Ashura are; The repentance of Prophet Adam was accepted on this day; Prophet Noah's ark settled on Mt. Judi and the believers were saved; for this reason a fast of thanksgiving was held; Prophet Moses and the Israelites were saved from the oppression of the Pharaoh on this day.

In addition to this, there are those who are of the opinion that on this day Jonah was rescued from the belly of the fish, the Prophets Moses and Jesus were born, Prophet Solomon was given his wealth, and Prophet Abraham, the forefather of the Arabs, was born.

In the Quran, in verse 183 in Surah Al-Baqara, which informs us of the blessings of the Ramadan fast, we learn that fasting is a characteristic of the ancient religions. There are reports from Aisha and Abdullah b. Umar that the Quraish fasted on the Day of Ashura. The report from Aisha is as follows: "Ashura was a day on which the Quraysh fasted in the time of ignorance. The Prophet respected this. When he immigrated to Medina he continued this fast and he ordered others to do the same. But when the Ramadan fast was made compulsory he ceased to fast on the Day of  Ashura and after this Muslims could fast on this day or not, as they wished."

The report from Abdullah b. Umar is as follows: "Ashura was a day on which people fasted in the time of ignorance. But when the fast during Ramadan became compulsory the Prophet was asked about the matter of Ashura. He said that Ahsura was one of Allah's days and those who wished to could fast, and those who did not wish to do so did not have to fast."

A dialogue that took place between the Jews and Prophet Muhammad is often recorded in Islamic historical sources. One day when the Prophet was meeting with the Jews he learned that they were fasting and he asked the reason why. The Jews replied that on this day Moses and the Israelites had been saved from the oppression of the Pharaoh, and that the Pharaoh and his family had been drowned in the sea. Upon hearing this Prophet Muhammad said "We are more befitting of and closer to Moses than you" and he fasted the Ashura fast that day and told the Muslims to fast as well.3 After the emigration of the Prophet to a new social environment he acted in this way in consideration of the future of Islam and the Muslims, and saw no objection to Muslims fasting on the 10th day of Muharram, that is, the Day of Ashura, which coincided with the day of the Jewish feast. It is possible to interpret this act of the Prophet as an attempt to bring the different sectors of Medina together. When examined from this aspect, in the historical context, there is no problem with the Prophet's accepting the reasons given by the Jews for respecting this day. That no revelation negating this action was given and the fact that Prophet Muhammad did not keep this fast after the compulsory Ramadan fast was revealed only goes to support this. We should take into consideration that the reason why the Prophet allowed the Companions freedom in this matter was because the fast and other religious practices that took place on this day were not opposed to the basic principles of Islamic faith and worship. However, this pure concept of Ashura continued until the sorrowful event at Karbala in 61/680, when it was to become politicized under the Umayyads in opposition to the political dimensions that the Shiites were trying to introduce.

With the murder of Hussein on 10 Muharram 61/10 October 680 in Karbala this date gained importance for Shiite Muslims and it became a day of mourning on which the promise to wreak revenge for the murder of Hussein is renewed. However, during the time of the Umayyad administration this inclination, naturally, did not turn into action; the Umayyad administration was opposed to the proclamation of the Day of Ashura as a day of mourning by the Shiites. Rather the Umayyads considered this day to be a vehicle to help people forget the disaster at Karbala and they undertook to secure that this was a day of celebration with a festival air. This division can be seen in the different meanings that have been given to the Day of Ashura by the Muslims of two different understandings since the time of the Umayyads.

According to information that we can attain from Islamic historical sources, since the beginning of the Abbasid caliphate, it became official practice for the Buwayhids, who came under the influence of the Abbasid caliphate in 352/963, that the 10th of Muharram was a day for the Shiites to perform a ritual of mourning; in both form and contents it began to be carried out with much more magnificent ceremonies than previously. Taken from the Buwayhids, the Fatimids adopted this and accepted the Day of Ashura as a day of mourning. Later, in the time of the Ayyubids this was no longer a day of mourning, but came to be a celebration of joy, as it had been with the Umayyads.

The Day of Ashura being a general rite of mourning that is part of Shiite tradition happened after the Safavid ruler Shah Ismail came to power, making the Shiite sect dominant in Iran; he used the Day of Ashura as a sign of solidarity for the sect in an effort to respond to the expansion activities of his neighbor, the Ottoman State. As can be understood, the political dimensions of the Day of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, were constantly kept to the fore in accordance with the identity of the state, and it has come to us today without any changes in the way that it is celebrated, individual to both the Sunni and Shiite Muslims, who interpret and celebrate this day in different ways.


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